People are flying domestically again, though it’s mostly leisure travelers and there are signs demand may be plateauing and may even decline in August as COVID-19 cases rise in parts of the country. Airlines are bringing back flights and seats faster than demand has returned, too.
Internationally though planes remain empty but the flights that are available seem to work because of cargo – at least that’s the bet airlines are making.
A world in which there are plenty of empty seats should be a bonanza for frequent flyers looking to use their miles. Airlines traditionally want to make unsold seats available to members at the lowest prices.
- A seat that takes off empty can never be sold. So they might as well get some value out of it.
- Airlines hold back seats because they’re not always sure when those seats will go out empty. They might guess wrong, give a seat to a mileage member at the saver level, and then not have the seat for a paying customer.
- That’s why some of the best award availability historically has been last minute – when airlines are absolutely sure there will be seats going empty, and there are still plenty of seats left to sell to last minute customers.
Some airlines have been careful about giving away too much first or business class award space, out of fear of ‘cheapening the product’ for people who are paying full freight (or deep discount corporate fares). And airlines don’t want to give away a seat for miles to a member who would have otherwise paid cash.
Nonetheless looking at empty flights with plenty of seats on the day of departure, and still no award seats available at all, tells us something I think. And thus is the saga of American Airlines flight 106 tonight from New York JFK to London Heathrow. Here are that flight’s current loads:
Tonight’s flight is mostly empty. First class has half its seats still available. There are only 11 people confirmed in business classs and the cabin holds 52. There are 78 seats to sell in coach. That’s all without any overbooking, and accounting for no shows (which have been high during the COVID crisis).
So let’s check for saver awards. There are none available for any cabin.
How much does American want for award seats on this flight?
Today’s Dallas Fort-Worth – Tokyo Narita flight is even more egregious, because it’s even more empty.
This flight has no saver awards, either, in any cabin:
Just so you don’t think I’m cherry picking, or that there’s something special about the airline’s Boeing 777-300ER flights, let’s take a took at Dallas – Paris today.
Again, no awards in any cabin:
I can do this all day. Here’s Dallas – Amsterdam:
No saver awards here for any cabin, either. This also means, by the way, that American’s partner frequent flyer programs cannot access award space on these flights either (since only saver inventory is available to partners).
At some point a mileage program has to give members a break, when they’re absolutely certain they’ve got seats that will go unsold, don’t they? And what does it say that they choose not to do so?
It’s one thing to argue that they need to be conservative booking far in advance. They don’t know how many seats they’re going to sell for certain. And things are even tougher to predict now than before (although we can predict with pretty good confidence that most international flights will be full). Today’s departures, on mostly empty flights, are a certainty.
American’s flights do generally have upgrade seats available. If you’ll buy a coach ticket you can spend miles and cash co-pay, or use a systemwide upgrade, to get into business class (or buy business on 777-300ER airfact you can fly first). But you have to spend money on a ticket before American will make its unsold seats available to you as an AAdvantage member on this flight. Which is, effectively, adding fuel surcharges onto their award tickets.
I actually love my American AAdvantage miles. They’re the currency that I’ve redeemed the most. But it’s almost always to fly on their partners – like Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, and Etihad – and not to fly on American Airlines. The partners offer a better inflight experience, and American wants way too many miles to fly on its planes.